Friday, December 19, 2008

Pretty music

I'm between trips, as usual: having gotten back to snowy Ithaca from rainy California, I've traded one kind of cold for another, at least for a day or two. As I type, the plastic Christmas tree on the dining room table, inches from the computer, is quivering, its small round ornaments and surprisingly sharp little lights suddenly alive. Patti Labelle sings, "Don't rush to give me a present / Your presence is enough for me / Stay at home, I'll be happy." She's reminding her lover that the trappings of the holidays are insignificant in comparison to love, and she's singing these lines over the sinuous strings and crisp percussion of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (and their collaborators), and there is, right now, no Christmas album I could possibly love more, as these chords modulate and then, with the strings soaring, explode: "It's going to be a Merry Christmas," Patti sings, and how could it not be?

I was listening, about an hour ago, to Mary J. Blige's 2005 album, The Breakthrough, which I don't listen to much, mostly because it's too long and the gems are buried toward the end of the disc. But I encountered the same crackling, shimmering sound on "Can't Get Enough Love," another Jam and Lewis (and Wright and Avila) production, and thought, damn, this is... Pretty. Like, really freaking pretty. The stacked, super-produced harmonies; the vaguely asiatic waterfall-trickle on the keyboard that emerges halfway through the chorus, if you can even call it a chorus: "This is true / I can't get enough of you." It's a seductively gentle arrangement for a statement of such conviction. So much of what's on pop radio right now (and I include R&B radio in this verdict) is extravagantly ugly, showing off the robotic dissonance that a vocoder can produce in lieu of the human voice, and although I'm at pains to say how, for example, Janet Jackson's voice is different when she sings 2007's "Enjoy" (Jam & Lewis again), since Jackson is not exactly getting by without technology, nonetheless there's a warmth, a delight in euphony, that cascades across those plinkety-plinkety piano lines and compressed background vocals: "Just keep on doing it / Until your heart's content." There's even a chorus of giggling children, and I don't care; it's that lovely.

Jam & Lewis are famous. I know only their basic coordinates (time with The Time in the late 1980s, Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation, Blige's knockout "No More Drama," a recent move from Minneapolis to L.A.) but what strikes me as most important, right now, is their audible commitment to everything that glides and glimmers in a love song. It might still be possible--they've been saying for two decades now--to hope for beauty right at the heart of the most stalwart clich├ęs. Right in the thick of them.